Damages for caretaker who worked up ladders for 30 years – then fell off

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The Independent Online

The perils of using a stepladder might seem obvious, but a local council was facing a hefty bill last night for failing to teach a school caretaker enough about the particular dangers of setting up his equipment in the wrong way.

Anthony Gower-Smith, who told the court that he had used ladders for 30 years in his previous job as a petrol station owner, sued the local authority for £50,000, though the amount of damages has yet to be agreed. He claimed he had not received proper training and consequently fell off and injured himself.

Mr Gower-Smith, 73, fell off a 6ft ladder as he tried to remove a card display and staples from a wall at Awbridge Primary School in Romsey, Hampshire, in January 2004, suffering skull fractures and an injury to his right kidney.

Yesterday, the part-time worker won his case as a judge at the High Court ruled that his employer, Hampshire County Council, was 75 per cent to blame for the accident.

The judge, Christopher Moger QC, said: "His training was deficient and, not-withstanding his self-confidence and readiness to trust in his own judgement, I find that his lack of training was responsible for him failing to put the ladder through the door at right-angles, for his lack of awareness of the extent of the danger posed, and therefore for the accident itself."

Winchester County Court heard earlier that Mr Gower-Smith had been through a structured course on how to use a ladder and signed an induction training sheet when he started the job to show he had received instruction in the safe use of such equipment. But the judge found that the authority's caretaking support officer, who conducted the training sessions, did not explain matters adequately.

The judge said: "The fact that stepladders are everyday objects of which most people would be expected to have some experience makes careful training of the less obvious risks associated with their use more rather than less important.

"It was necessary to go into greater detail, and with greater clarity, and with more of an explanation of the mechanism of overturning the ladder than she did to explain those risks."

The judge said that while the risks might be obvious to an "experienced, intelligent and self-reliant man" such as Mr Gower-Smith, the particular danger of placing the ladder side-on to the wall had not been properly explained.

The court decided, however, that the damages award will be reduced by 25 per cent to reflect Mr Gower- Smith's contributory negligence.

The judge said: "It must have been obvious to him, as it is to anyone who uses a stepladder, that the equipment became less stable and he became more vulnerable the higher he climbed and the further he reached.

"The primary cause of the accident was positioning the ladder parallel to the wall and his lack of training is the cause of that and of his lack of awareness of the degree of danger that caused, but in my judgment he was at fault in climbing to the top of the ladder."

David Kirk, of Hampshire County Council, which had denied negligence, said: "While we are very sorry that an accident happened ... the county council is also extremely surprised and disappointed today with the court's verdict."

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